The first stage of implementing freedom of information legislation has been set in train with a ‘commencement order’ requiring public bodies to publish details of what information they will make available, how it will be published and whether there will be a charge. Central department must publish these details by the end of November. Other deadlines for Publishing Schemes are: February 2003 for councils, June 2003 for the police, October 2003 for the health service and January 2004 for schools and universities. Full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act will start in January 2005.Publication Schemes are seen as the first step towards a culture of openness which is an essential requirement for the public’s right of access to function effectively. Although there will be some restrictions on what information can be disclosed, the presumption will be that the public will have access to all records held by central and local government, the health service and the police.
The introduction of the Act will result in the character of information changing from an adjunct to the processes of the organization to a resource that has to be managed. The effect of this is that records must be reliable, can be found when needed and that they are properly destroyed or archived. The records management function will need to be recognised as a specific corporate programme within a public body and a designated member of staff will have lead responsibility for records management. Human resource policies and practices will need to address the recruitment and retention of good quality staff. Staff throughout the organization will need training.
Masons, a law firm specializing in freedom of information consultancy, has developed a support package to help both lawyers in the public sector and information officers, by combining expert legal guidance with practical tools for implementation. The package includes a manual, project plan, introductory training presentation, a briefing paper for staff, a guide to the legislation and a web resources guide.